Hell and Black
Heath Black has documented his tortuous battle with alcohol abuse, Bipolar II and ADHD. After hitting rock bottom, the former Fremantle and St Kilda footballer, has found new purpose — helping others.
Football biographies can be pretty formulaic. They often begin with the subject’s junior days, replete with some cheesy old photographs, and chart a seemingly inevitable rise through the ranks to the big league.
To say Heath Black’s new autobiography is in stark contrast would be some sort of understatement. The aptly named Black starts with the former Fremantle and St Kilda player, having recently retired from the AFL, seemingly on a quest for total self-destruction. Far from hero, the subject, by his own admission, is closer to a monster.
This book begins with Black recounting a trip to Bali in January 2009, when, after goading a pair of Russian tourists on a scooter and being headbutted in return, he nearly killed one of them.
“I went again and with one punch straight in the face knocked him down and out,” he writes. “I then walked up to his mate, who had his arms up and was backing away, but I just started to punch him again and again in the face. Punch after punch … I was turning his face into a bloody pulp and even after my brother jumped on my back to try and stop me I kept going.
“I still hadn’t finished. I picked up their scooter with some kind of super-human strength — the rage was so strong — and just slammed it into the ground; again and again and again. The exhaust pipe was burning into my forearm but I didn’t feel it.”
Black then takes us to Northbridge in Perth, that July, where he wrestles a man to the ground outside a nightclub, is arrested and locked-up overnight. Then it’s on to the Hyde Park Hotel about eight weeks later, where he’s drinking himself silly, and in a paranoid state, beats up a man he believes to be a drug dealer, this time charged with disorderly conduct and fined.
Black knocks himself out trying to jump a fence while drunk. Another time he wakes up in the dirt under a car. Late in the year, with his partner Asha’s parents visiting from South Australia, he finds himself locked up again on another drunk and disorderly. And that’s all in the first chapter.
This is an extraordinary book. Black, written in collaboration with Perth author Lisa Holland-McNair, is not merely a confessional or a warts-and-all exercise, but a trawling through the depths of what has been a deeply tortured soul. Fortunately for Black, his family and friends, it’s also a book which ends on a far happier note than it begins.
The former AFL player has his life back together. He and partner Asha were married last New Year’s Eve, and have moved back to Melbourne. He’s playing serious football again, about to launch into a new season as a player with Vermont in the Eastern Football League, after a concerted fitness campaign.
“I was coming from a long way back,” he told The Age this week. “The last time I played seriously competitive footy was back in 2008 with Freo, so I had to train my arse off just to get half-fit.”
Black is also spending much of his time on the speaking circuit, working in conjunction with the AFL Players Association and youth mental health foundation headspace, talking to, among others, the leadership groups at AFL clubs about recognising the signs of mental illness.
That’s the sort of support he, more than anyone, could have used during his days with the Dockers and Saints.
Black played 192 games over 12 seasons with Fremantle and St Kilda, making his debut at 17 after being taken at No.?12 in the 1996 national draft. It was a fine career, though one dotted liberally with acts of ill-discipline and suspensions.
You always felt Black could have been an even better player. After reading this, you’ll wonder how he managed to carve out any sort of AFL career.
Plagued by anxiety for the duration of his AFL days, Black sought refuge in alcohol. It led to ugly incident after ugly incident, one that pushed those closest to him to breaking point. “As my mum has always told me,” he writes, “you are one of the most amazing people, sober — caring, you’ve got it all. But you are an absolute arsehole when you are drunk.”
It’s hard to find a single “rock bottom” in his story. There are several. The incident in Bali. A day of binge drinking at the Perth Cup in 2006 that finished with him taking on police and subsequently being charged with assault occasioning bodily harm, obstructing police and assaulting a female police officer.
Yet even that didn’t prove a massive wake-up call. Nor the football trip to Thailand in 2008, when a drunken Black made disrespectful comments about the wife of a bar-owner whose establishment he was inhabiting, and had a gun pointed at him.
“The gun incident proved something to me,” Black writes. “I thought I was invincible. I couldn’t have given two shits if someone wanted to attack me, I was actually nearing the stage where I wanted it to happen, so I could get hurt to the point where I no longer had to face things. Maybe even be killed. I had never felt like that before. I just wanted something to get me out of the pain of what I was going through.”
That had something to do with what was going on in his personal life, his marriage having broken down just a few months previously.
“As I was contemplating my retirement from footy, my marriage fell apart and I was kicked out of home. In fact, during the last few months I was playing in the AFL, I was living out of my car — literally eating and sleeping in my car. Unbelievably, I thought I was coping, but looking back it was all a charade.”
Black freely admits the catalogue of drama more in keeping with a gangster novel seems scarcely believable now. But the pieces of a very disturbing mental jigsaw puzzle only began coming together when, after a series of misdiagnoses, he was finally diagnosed with both Bipolar II and adult ADHD last year.
That came as a particular relief to Black’s wife, Asha, who had lived with her partner for some time ignorant of the demons within. Their relationship had been stretched to breaking point when Heath began to go off the rails.
“Some people called me Jekyll and Hyde, while Asha called my different personalities Heath and Keith,” writes Black. “Actually, it was more than Jekyll and Hyde or Heath and Keith; there was a whole bloody team of people inside me.”
Asha also gives voice in Black to the difficulties faced by the partner of anyone in Heath’s former state, the creeping sense of unease about what she didn’t know, including his sexual fidelity.
“I was completely unaware of Heath’s alter ego, who we now jokingly refer to as ‘Keith’,” she says. “Keith had total disrespect for women and treated them like an animal he’d hunt down for sex. I never met Keith when I was in Melbourne. If I had, I would have run a mile before things got any more serious.
“Heath admitted to juggling three other girls at the start of our relationship. I was crushed — for me and for the other girls. None of us deserved to be treated with such little respect. In a strange way, I was relieved to finally understand why a chunk of our relationship didn’t quite fit together. It has taken me a long time to get over the exorcism of Keith and I would be lying if I said that I was completely over it now. I don’t think I ever will be. It still pops into my mind from time to time, and has now become such an ever-present insecurity that I have sought counselling to try to overcome it.
“I’m sure the million-dollar question everyone is dying to ask is, why didn’t I leave him? Simple — the desire to be with Heath was greater than the desire to leave him. I couldn’t imagine my life without him, nor did I want a life without him.”
Black’s life began to come together again with his diagnosis, and when he took a job in 2010 surveying, and coached a country football club in south-west WA. His medical condition has caused him to reassess most of the life that’s gone before.
Bipolar II, he says, is “a strange animal”, which can lay dormant then be triggered by a major life event, in his case his AFL retirement and breakdown of his first marriage.
“No one knows how long I might have suffered from the condition. Even when I played footy in the under-9s, I was an aggressive little shit. When I spoke to mum after the diagnosis, she thought that I hadn’t been quite right for a while. She said to me: ‘I always knew you were a little different’. She thought it was ADHD and because there were not so many solutions around when I was a kid, she just focused on getting me to expend my energy playing sport. I think football was a natural medication for my Bipolar II and when it was taken away there was no escape from all the extremes.”
Black says he’s written the book as much for his own two sons, Chayce, 11, and Cayden, 8, as anyone, writing heartfelt messages to both inside two copies he hopes they will read when they’re older.
“I wrote the messages, and it was quite hard to do, pretty emotional,” he told The Age this week. “I think it’s really important that they sit through the book at the right age and be able to determine why dad was on the front page, and why media crews were camped out the front of my house.”
And, after emerging through the other side of a dark place, there’s plenty more people out there whom Black hopes he can offer some insight into their own mental issues.
“I just want to help people get started,” he concludes in his book. “I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s bloody hard and it’s on-going, but let me leave you with this observation: before I came out and said I had a mental illness, I would attract aggressive people who wanted to have a go at me. That’s disappeared. I now attract people who need help or just want someone to listen to them. I’d be bullshitting if I said it wasn’t draining because it is, but I truly feel this is my purpose, my calling. I just have to do it.”